Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Maroon Peak (7/18/12)

Route Name: South Ridge
Start Elevation: 9,554 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,156 ft.
Distance: 11.971 mi.
Elevation Gain: 5,099 ft.

Start Time: 3:07am
South Maroon Trail Junction: 5:28am
Top East Slope: 8:06am
Summit Time: 10:36am
Top East Slope: 12:57pm
South Maroon Trail Junction: 3:00pm
End Time: 4:57pm
Duration: 13 hrs 50 mins


To begin this hike we drove over to Aspen and Maroon Lake last night from Frisco. We got in just before 11pm and setup sleeping stations in the Explorer. We also put out mothballs under the Explorer as recent reports had suggested this to keep the porcupines away.
We awoke in our cold Explorer at 2:45am on the first alarm. It was a short and not well-slept night in the tight confines of the vehicle and with the anxieties of the hike to come. We made quick work of our pre-hike preparations and were on the trail from the Day-Hikers lot by 3:07am. Having been around the Bells a few times before it was easy with our headlamps to find the highway of a trail around Maroon Lake heading for the "Deadly Bells" sign. It was there that our experience quickly ran out. We started on the very obvious trail that heads left from the sign not noticing the other trail that is just slightly more hidden to the right or the sign 10 feet down the trail that points towards the Crater Lake trail. The loop trail looked great for the first quarter mile til we noticed it was turning a direction that didn't add up. I checked our track on the BCN app on my Bionic and noticed we were indeed on the wrong trail. It was not pleasing to think of having to backtrack to the start already so we considered trying to bushwhack to the real trail. We knew based on the GPS and having hike to Crater Lake before roughly where the trail should be. We were fortunate in finding an old connector trail, with some downed logs blocking it that looked like it may help. Indeed we followed it and it dropped us with very minimal bushwhacking onto the Crater Lake trail. Phew.

The rest of the ascent to the first junction at Crater Lake went uneventfully and we quickly made our way in the beautiful night time scenery onto the West Maroon trail. The hike to the South Maroon junction was straight-forward and very easy to follow. We started to get some light and shut headlamps down just as we arrived at the South Maroon trail junction. After spotting the very obvious, and famous, bent tree the junction was somewhat easy to spot. The initial hill, just 30 feet up the trail, was just slightly (read: incredibly moreso) steeper than we had thought based on the route description photo.

The beginning portion of Maroon's East slope went pretty much as the route description said it. You ascend upward for a few hundred feet and then traverse on your last bit of level ground to the south for another few hundred to a gully. You ascend on the right side of the gully on steep trail until a clear point where you traverse and then ascend the left side of the gully.
It was here we began in earnest looking down every 50 feet or so to remember what it should look like for the descent. The ascent was steep and arduous but route-finding had been straight-forward. This was the case until about 12000. We hit this point and did not notice the trail winding subtely up through the first bit of cliffs and instead followed what looked like a clear trail to our left. We continued following what appeared to be good trail heading upwards and to the south for awhile. After about 25 minutes I noticed on my GPS we were off the standard route, and sure enough we could see the appearance of a trail to our north on the slope. We debated trying to traverse back over to it but decided that since we were still on good trail heading upwards we'd stick with it.

Our "trail" continued its ascent ever veering to the left. We crossed over 2 ribs with each figuring it would start veering us back right to the main trail but they kept us going further left. Finally we hit what appeared to be the last rib on the southern portion of the massive slope and here the trail started to ascend the crest of the rib towards the south ridge of Maroon. We followed this rib crest upwards hoping for the best at the top. When it topped out on the ridge we found some very easy scrambling to take us over to the saddle where the main trail tops out. It turned out that this ascent route went quite well. We noticed the very steep terrain at the top of the main trail and decided we may well descend our alternate route as well.

So. The south ridge of Maroon Peak. The view from here was just as gnarly as we'd seen it in photos.

Pano of Maroon's south ridge
The views of Fravert Basin were also just as beautiful (and more) as photos seen.
Pano of Fravert Basin

I pulled up the basic route on my phone and double-checked our next few steps and we set out towards the first chimney climb. It took just a few minutes of fairly easy going along the ridge to get to the chimney. We made it up through the chimney with no trouble and then its a quick left turn and another short climb through the notch. This actually was slightly more difficult because of the nature of the reaching involved.

So far, so good. We began here comparing our next "view" with the route photo and sure enough, it was spot on. We worked along the easy terrain and rounded a corner to more easy, ledgy terrain. With every corner we rounded we made sure to look back and make mental notes of what to look for on the descent. When we had views forward we also made mental notes about the route and what to be looking for. This was especially helpful with the presence of a small snowpatch we knew to be at the top of the twin gullies.

When we arrived at the two gullies they too looked just as described. Based on trip reports we'd read we had already decided two hike the second (northern) gully. The presence of a tiny snowfield at its top (which is also in the route photos) solidified this decision as it would prove to be an easy marker to help us locate the top of the gully on ascent and descent. The traverse past the first gully was not hard and we soon found ourselves staring up at the somewhat narrow, very steep, and full of loose rock second gully.

The rock in the first 20-30 feet of the gully was mostly basketball-size and loose. We did most of our climing through here hugging the solid rock on the sides of the gully and doing our best to stay off the loose-junk in the middle. We also had a group of 3 we knew were coming soon behind us and didn't want to be firing deadly projectiles down the gully.

With slow and very careful work, even climbing up and out of the gully on the left for a short-while, we made it to just below the snow patch at the top of the gully and spotted the obvious ledge taking us around another corner. The next two pictures and YouTube video give you an idea of what this ledge and many of the other ledges look like. Some did get pretty thin at points, others gave you plenty of room to work with and feel safe.

This soon led us to the bottom of the large gully. As we neared it there was a faint dirt trail that made it clear where to ascend this gully. For the most part the trail was clear enough to make small switchbacks and ascend this gully to the clear notch at the top.

When you are just below the notch you need to start looking at the steep rock to your left for the proper (and very narrow) ledge to gain the rib that gets you higher. This video gives you a look at this area at the top of the large gully and below the notch.
It was after this that the route-finding became its hardest. We started to ascend the slope between 13800 and 13900 and it spit us out on the ridge top. It was difficult climbing in here and great care had to be taken not to dislodge rocks onto fellow climbers. We realized that when you hit the ridge around 13900 in this section, there is a large wall blocking further easy passage on the ridge, so you traverse on ledges around it, and then ascend another 100+ feet to gain the ridge somewhere above it.
The video here gives you an idea of what much of the climbing looks like above 13,800ft.
When we finally gained the ridge after difficult climbing in the 2nd section above 13,900 we knew this time it was a straight shot to the summit. It took us, slow and steady, just under 2 1/2 hours from the saddle to the summit. The weather was still looking great and we only had the other group of 3 on the summit with us so we were feeling awesome.
Pano of Fravert Basin, Snowmass and Capitol from Maroon's summit
Not surprisingly, the views from the top were breathtaking. What a harrowing look at the traverse and then North Maroon's summit. Pyramid and her long ridge is also a sight to behold. We spent about 20 minutes on the summit and then began descending. It was fairly easy to find our spot to descend from the summit ridge (same spot as we ascended), but from there the route-finding is again quite a challenge. You can see how different our ascent/descent routes were of the last 200 feet. The main thing as you descend is you need to be traversing left as you go. The goal is to gain that thin ledge that drops you into the top of the large gulley. Once you're in the large gulley on the descent the rest is *relatively* straight-forward.

We did a good job finding the cairns that lead you around the corners to each new element on the descent. Descending gully #2 took great care not to launch rocks down. If you did a good job looking back on your ascent, the descent through most of the ridge should look somewhat familiar. After getting back to the notch and then the chimney we were relieved to be past the primary difficulties on the south ridge.

Pano of Pyramid Peak from the saddle on the south ridge of the descent

We again decided to descend the east slope the same alternate way we ascended it. The slightly less steep terrain at the top sounded better for the aging and tired knees. This involved staying on the south ridge just a little longer past the normal descent route and finding the trail on a rib that heads out to the southeast from the ridge. We were able to descend the east slope almost entirely on the same trails we used coming up. As many people have previously noted, descending the east slope is a chore and mostly a nightmare. Its long, its arduous, its relentless, it just ain't that much fun. Even the final downclimb just before the trail junction gave us trouble as a dislodged rock nearly caught my brother on the helmet. We were pleased though to have great climbing and great weather for this awesome hike. The 3.5 mile slog out went pretty fast as the sun tried to cook us. It is almost a little fun having your 2 minutes of celebrity as so many of the tourists on the Crater Lake Trail ask about the helmets and obvious climbing gear.


David took a plethora of video (20 to be exact) on this hike and has them all conveniently in a playlist on his YouTube channel. Follow this link to catch all the video from this hike:


This track was taken with the BackCountry Navigator app on my Droid Bionic. For the most part it follows the standard route on Maroon Peak. You can see where we got "lost" on the Maroon Lake Loop Trail at the beginning and then bushwhacked. You can also see how our route up the east slope varies from the standard route. It also shows you the variation in our paths near the summit of Maroon as the route-finding became more difficult.

My Track


You can see all of my photos from this classic climb in my Google Photos Album. Just click the photo below:

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